Matters of the spirit: Thirsty in the Big Apple

A trip to New York saw our writer savour a welcome slice of India in Manhattan, while at the same time enjoying one of the top aperitivo experiences the cocktail world has to offer. Read on.
The bar at indian accent's new york outpost.
The bar at Indian Accent’s New York outpost.

“Which one of you is the graduate?” he said as he advanced on our table, with a bottle of sparkling wine and a grin. Not a tough question to answer, considering the table had my wife, my daughter and I seated at it, but that touch of sparkle set the mood to follow and helped illustrate what’s kept Indian Accent at the top of the game, not just in India, but in New York too, where we were dining, the occasion being a celebratory post-graduation dinner.

Ghee roast lamb, roomali roti pancakes and assorted chutneys at indian accent, new york.
Ghee roast lamb, roomali roti pancakes and assorted chutneys at Indian Accent, New York.

Indian Accent is located on West 56th Street in Midtown Manhattan, and is an expansive space that at the same time gives you a feeling of intimacy. We were having the three-course menu (skipping dessert), and the server helped us pick out a “best of” selection across the menu. I was here also to weigh in on the bar program, and the bar, in fact, is the first thing that greets you as you enter Indian Accent. There’s a touch of whimsy in the cocktail names with Neer More offering you Mustard Tequila, Kummel and Velvet Falernum and Transcendental Medication with Honeycomb Gin, Genepy Sage Liqueur and Lavender Tincture.

As the team tells me, the cocktail program is built around two ideas, traditional non-alcoholic drinks from India like Roohafza that helps inspire the Mudra Punch and modification to classic cocktails with Indian ingredients, like the Proper Copper that adapts the Moscow Mule with kewra or rose blossom water. 

My attention is, however, drawn to Mughal Fortification with Small Batch Bourbon, Saffron and Toasted Coriander and Strega (an herbal Italian liqueur). A spin on the Old Fashioned, the sweetness is delivered by the Strega, that also gives it a herbal flavour, that combines well with the coriander. We’re well into our sparkling wine also by then, as the appetisers have been streaming in (the Assamese pork dumplings and Beet and peanut butter tikki being highlights).

My daughter gives me company with the Fortification, that arrives in time for the mains to descend on us. Enough paeans have been written about Indian Accent’s food and while not being a food critic myself, I can just vouch as an honest eater to the sumptuousness of the food, the plating, the flavour and the generosity of the servings. The ghee roast lamb and the prawn koliwada were both clear standouts from the three mains served, and the server insisted on bringing us some of their dal with naan, the proverbial straw that left us ill equipped even to tackle the one dessert that was served up, the doda barfi tart. The last dregs of the bottle of wine drunk, we bid our adieus and stagger out sated into the womb of the Metro.

Caffe dante's burrata with slow-poached tomato. Image: steve freihon.
Dante NYC’s Burrata with slow-poached tomato. Image: Steve Freihon.

A friend helped me score a much-coveted reservation at Caffe Dante, in Greenwich Village. I’d had Dante on my mind ever since it clocked in as # 1 in World’s 50 Best Bars 2019 and # 2 in the following year. It’s slipped a few places since then but if you’re in the mood for an aperitivo experience outside Italy, there can perhaps be no better place.

Dante is located on MacDougal Street, a narrow street lined with cafés with the crowd spilling over onto the enclosed sidewalk. As our car crawled up the street in search of parking, we spotted the Café and heard strains of music spill out from a band there. Funnily enough, considering it’s a storied Italian café in NYC (dating back to 1915), it’s cocktail renaissance came about seven years ago, via three Aussies, star bartenders Naren Young and Linden Pride, and Natalie Hudson, with Pride and Hudson being the owners of Dante.

The negroni bianco at dante is garnished with flowers, an interesting touch. Image: steve freihon.
The Negroni Bianco at Dante is garnished with flowers, an interesting touch. Image: Steve Freihon.

Dante, apart from the sidewalk seating, has two small rooms, each with a bar, the inner room with the real bar, and the outer where we were seated with a mock bar, a great design element I thought that had people seated at it, inside and outside. Our first orders are a Negroni Bianco ($16) for me, a Sevilla Spritz ($16) for my daughter and an El Diablo on Tap ($18) for my wife. We order a portion of burrata to accompany the cocktails. The service is quick, and my sense is that the cocktails are pre-batched for speed of delivery. The presentation of my Negroni Bianco (Brooklyn Gin / Quinquina, an aromatised wine / Alessio Bianco Vermouth / Carpano Dry Vermouth / Lemon Bitters) was remarkable for the strands of flowers that floated in my glass, lending it an other-worldly aspect. My wife’s El Diablo was a Paloma variation (Don Julio Tequila / Vida Mezcal / Meletti, an amaro / Cassis / Grapefruit soda / Devil’s salt). “Spicy and delicious” was her verdict. The Spritz was served in a highball with a big slice of orange and a leaf poking out, and sufficed for my daughter for the evening.

Seville spritz giada paoloni
The Seville Spritz Giada Paoloni at Dante.

A large portion of the burrata was also quickly up, and was excellent, with the rye bread perfect to slather the cheese and the tomato with and a perfect match for my Negroni. I was the only one ploughing on with the cocktails, and my next one was another fan favourite, the Mezcalito ($15), a Negroni variation that swapped the gin for hibiscus-infused Mezcal. For our mains, we decided to share portions of the Verde Flatbread and the Wild Boar Pappardelle, so that we could keep some space for a Tiramisu to follow. Although cocktails and food were on point, I did feel that the training levels of my server left something to be desired, as he seemed ill equipped when it came to the bar menu, and what might be suitable recommendations.

Wild boar pappardelle at dante. Image: steve freihon.
Wild Boar Pappardelle at Dante. Image: Steve Freihon.

A quick walk around the bar leads me to a sign on the wall that inspires me to order my third and final cocktail for the night, a pitch perfect Mini Martini (Ford’s Gin / Ketel One Vodka / Dolin Blanc Nardini Cedro, a lemon liqueur / Olive and lemon bitters, served in a beauty of a Martini glass, and at $5, a steal.).

And the writing on the wall that drew me to that last drink, you ask:

“The Dante Martini, nobody needs it, everybody wants it”.

Amen.

Mini martinis at dante. You gotta have one.
Mini Martinis at Dante. You gotta have one.

Hemant Pathak, the General Manager of NYC’s Junoon, is an old friend, and the last time we met, was at Junoon itself, nine years ago, where he’d hosted us for a lovely lunch at the restaurant. The restaurant has since shifted locations and much for the better, as the new space is a delight. As a keen bar hopper, I always love spots that put the bar front and centre, and Junoon delivers, with a lovely bar occupying the lion’s share of the room into which we enter with bar stools around it and tables on the side. The rooms behind are for dining, and well appointed, in keeping with the Michelin star that the restaurant got in the year of its launch, and for eight years in a row.

The bar at junoon, new york.
The bar at Junoon, New York.

But I’m not here to dine tonight. I’m here to meet my friend, and as I told him, just for one drink, as dinner beckons elsewhere. We all know how this story goes though. In his heart Hemant is a bartender, and before I know it, he’s behind the bar, running the prep for what turned out to be not one cocktail, but three, all lovingly presented in a brand-new flight they offer called a Flight to India. Beautifully presented on a small wooden tray with a map of India at its centre, and three glasses on it.

A highlight of junoon's cocktail program is flight to india, a trio of drinks inspired by india.
A highlight of Junoon’s cocktail program is Flight to India, a trio of drinks inspired by India.

Junoon’s cocktail program uses a “mix of classical tenets and modern techniques creating drinks that blend local fruits and herbs with unconventional spices and teas, particularly from India”. What I particularly like, however, is the fact that along with the Indian ingredients, they’ve also used a fine selection of Indian spirits, paying due respect to the craft spirits revolution brewing back home, with Hapusa taking pride of place in the Stinging Vesper and Amrut single malt in the Junoon in Manhattan. The Stinging Vesper is Junoon’s take on this classic Martini, named for Vesper Lynd, James Bond’s ill-fated fiancé. Aptly named as sting him she did. The Masala Rye is their take on the Old Fashioned with a spice nectar incorporating 11 different spices replacing the traditional sweetener. I recall visiting the Walk in Spice Room in 2013, a space that they’ve done away with for now. My favourite of the trio though is clearly the Manhattan, that also has their house Amaro (which I taste separately as well) and the Timur Pepper that gives a tingle to the tongue. The tuna puchkas served up on the side crackle in my mouth as I sip on the drink. On my way out, Hemant had a welcome bit of news for me too, but my lips are sealed.

Vikram achanta

Vikram Achanta is founder and CEO of Tulleeho, a drinks training and consulting firm, and a co-founder of www.tulleeho.com, a drinks website. He is also co-founder of 30 Best Bars India, India’s first bar awards and ranking platform. His Instagram handle is @rumdoodle69.

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